His blue eyes had a sparkle that was magnetic. We sat gazing at each other, talking, waiting for our lunch to arrive. It was our fourth date. Our previous outing had been to a movie where we were so distracted by each other we’d had a hard time following the story line.
At the restaurant table, we tossed around travel stories and opinions about books. We had each other’s undivided attention. Then I heard a buzz. My companion’s eyes shot downward and he grabbed his phone. He began texting while distractedly finishing his thought. In that moment, I disappeared — or at least that’s how it felt.
It turned out this episode was an augur of our demise. A few weeks later, he broke things off, via email, never explaining the reasons while looking me in the eye.
Most of us have a story similar to this. And most of us have been on both sides. Digital devices can make difficult emotions seem easier to manage. You can compose your thoughts at your own pace without pressure. Then you can duck the real-time response, which might be uncomfortable. Or at least unpredictable.
In less charged situations, electronic communication is irresistibly convenient. Dash off a quick text to say you’re running late; check in with a group of friends on social media; look up directions to where you’re going. Our digital devices offer many practical benefits. But they also offer a near-constant temptation to pull away from the real-life interactions and relationships that are vital to our happiness — and our health.
This can leave us feeling lonely, isolated, and hungry for deeper connection — even as we feel like we’re buried in digital correspondence of all kinds. This social disconnect not only affects our ability to sustain relationships and maintain good mental health, but it also can trigger inflammation and hormonal surges that lead to chronic disease.
So it’s not surprising that more health experts are paying attention to our “social health.”
John Cacioppo, PhD, a professor in the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology who specializes in social isolation and resilience, has found loneliness to be a risk factor for a wide range of health problems, including elevated stress and diminished immunity. (Other research has declared the health risks of loneliness equal to smoking.) He argues that we should view loneliness the way we do thirst and hunger. It’s a clear signal that we need something — in this case, more connection. And online social networking, he says, doesn’t replace the in-person variety.
Learning to take care of our social health requires a bit of self-awareness about how we use our devices, and a willingness to put them down on occasion. The rewards, including more satisfying relationships and even better physical health, are invaluable.
A Growing Disconnect
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults own smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center, and the average texter sends or receives at least 40 messages a day. We spend countless hours on mobile devices listening to podcasts, reading, playing games, and scanning social-media sites. In a Pew study last year, 89 percent of adult cell-phone owners said they had used their phone during their most recent time with others. It’s not just a teen thing.
While digital communication isn’t the sole cause, current research shows that our social lives are suffering. Time spent sitting and talking with family members declined by one-third from 1975 to 2000, as did the number of family dinners and vacations, according to researchers at Harvard Kennedy School.
They also found that Americans were much less likely to invite friends for a visit in 2000 than they were in 1975: The number of these visits dropped by 45 percent. Participation in clubs and civic organizations plunged by more than half during that same period.
Because we are not meeting up as often, we run the risk of missing each other relationally — not seeing others or feeling seen by them. We may be making connections digitally with more people, in more places, and more easily, but these interactions lack some key ingredients.
Why We Need Each Other
When it comes to sustaining healthy relationships, the value of nonverbal communication is hard to overestimate. Reading someone’s gaze, facial movements, posture, and hand gestures makes it much easier to interpret his or her message correctly than when it’s delivered by text, tweet, or Facebook post.
“As social animals, we’re evolved to be acutely sensitive to the nuance of things like facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice,” says David Linden, PhD, a neurobiologist and professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “That’s why when you try to simulate it with computer graphics, it’s difficult to make it look convincing.”
Cognitive neuroscientists have observed that engaged eye contact helps develop and activate the parts of the brain that allow us to process another person’s feelings. “We’re extremely attuned to that interpersonal nuance,” Linden notes. According to a 2013 study in the Journal of Neuroscience, even people who have lost their vision respond neurologically when someone looks them in the eye.
We are also sensitive to tone of voice. There’s an obvious difference between a flatly intoned “I’m so excited” and a buoyant “I’m so excited!” As Linden points out, “all these things are lost when you text or Snapchat or say it on Facebook.”
Then there’s touch. By definition, it’s not possible with texts, posts, and emails, and research long ago established that touch is as crucial to infants as eating and sleeping. In his book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, Linden explains that this need “continues to be crucial across the span of human social life, promoting trust and cooperation and thereby deeply influencing our perceptions of others.”
Research shows that athletes who do more “celebratory touching” — the chest bumps, high-fives, and, yes, pats on the rear — “win more and play in a more cooperative style,” Linden says. “Touching is social glue.”
The Digital Addiction
For all practical purposes, our devices are addictive. Checking for messages, texts, and notifications becomes an unconscious habit, partly because with each incoming-message buzz, we get a shot of dopamine — a neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure of novelty. It’s the same neurochemical hit we get from new love or hard drugs. Addiction happens in part because dopamine drives the desire for more dopamine.
“When you remove the recurring stimulation, you can go into a sort of withdrawal,” says Dallas Hartwig, MS, cofounder of Whole9, a health-transformation consultancy. And like any addiction, failing to manage it has consequences for health.
Hartwig’s current work centers on the significance of social support, which, he says, is as important as what we eat and how much we exercise.
“My central hypothesis is that social support powerfully mediates the stress response. In doing so, it reduces the risk of chronic disease,” he explains.
In contrast to the dopamine high, which requires ongoing stimulation to maintain the buzz, in-person exchanges carry much more sustainable rewards, like the difference between sugary foods and nourishing whole foods, says Hartwig. A simple hug from someone you like, for example, stimulates biochemicals like oxytocin, a hormone that reinforces our feelings of connectedness and trust, and reduces fear and stress. In taming stress, oxytocin inhibits anxiety and lowers blood pressure.
When people are physically absent from our lives, we suffer physically. Loneliness increases levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and epinephrine, the fight-or-flight hormone.
Interrupting the biochemical cascade effect of loneliness is critical, says Hartwig. “The stress response goes hand in hand with chronic inflammation.”
Indeed, research from the University of Chicago has found that chronic loneliness is a risk factor for many conditions, including inflammation, metabolic syndrome, fragmented sleep, and diminished immunity.
“When you mediate the stress response, you’re also mediating inflammation — and that’s a major risk factor in chronic lifestyle diseases,” says Hartwig. “This kind of social support starts with in-person connections.”
Exceptions to the rule are real-time video platforms, including Skype and FaceTime, according to Roman Krznaric, the author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It. While they’re not a substitute for sitting down in the same room together, the ability to see nonverbal messages on the faces of our loved ones makes this communication technology far better than other forms of digital conversation.
Every Sunday over breakfast at their home in England, Krznaric and his family Skype with his parents in Australia, to great effect.
“My children have empathic relationships with their grandparents who are oceans away,” he says. Visiting in the flesh is best, Krznaric says, but when we converse via video, “it focuses our attention on the person we’re talking to.” And that’s how we bond.
Building Social Confidence
As rewarding and comforting as a hug or a face-to-face conversation can be, reaching out can be intimidating for some of us. Interacting in real time involves risks that can feel daunting (see below “Why We Hide”). “Really seeing someone else and who they are requires being willing to be seen yourself,” says Hartwig. “And when we show ourselves, we catalyze someone else to do it. It becomes a virtuous cycle.”
Creating opportunities for positive interactions takes practice — with people we know, as well as with strangers, Hartwig notes. He and other experts suggest trying the following strategies:
- Make new connections. Say hello to a stranger. A 2014 study of mass-transit commuters, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that participants who interacted with their seatmates en route had a more positive experience.
- Be a joiner. Sign up for a class, book group, hiking club, or volunteer position. According to a research group at Harvard, joining a club improves your life expectancy on par with quitting smoking.
- Don’t wait. Invite someone you know well or want to know better for coffee, a drink, or a walk — don’t wait for a special occasion or the “right” time.
- Stow your phone. Be mindful of how the presence of a phone can influence interactions. A visible device signals that a conversation may well be interrupted and can keep topics superficial.
- Flip the script. Instead of the generic “How are you?” ask more-specific questions of your friends and acquaintances. Try “What’s making you happy these days?” or even “How are your kids?” People generally open up more when they’re talking about what they love.
- Listen. Let go of any preconceptions and be present in conversation. You know you’re listening if you can identify the other person’s feelings. This practice hones curiosity and is critical for cultivating empathy.
- See what happens. Go into conversations without an agenda. Just start talking and see where it leads.
Krznaric sees conversations as improvisational collaborations in which we reveal ourselves. “A satisfying conversation is when you say something you’ve never said before,” he explains. “It’s about human connection and self-understanding. It means you’ve taken off your mask and it allows you to feel ‘I’m not quite who I was before.’”
After all, if we’re going to be changed by the way we relate, why not aim to make it for the better?